People passionate about nature

Tribute to Richard Staniforth (1946-2022)

Above: Richard photographing butterflies, Agassiz Road near Milner Ridge, Manitoba, 2 July 2017. [Photo by Peter Taylor]

With the passing of Richard Staniforth on 12 January 2022, Manitoba lost one of its pre-eminent naturalists, a friend and mentor to many.1 Richard was born on 2 October 1946 in Sidmouth, England, and his mother instilled a life-long, broad interest in nature for him and his siblings through long walks in the Devonshire countryside. Richard obtained his BSc in botany at the University of North Wales in Bangor. Here he met his future wife, Diana (Di), and they moved together to Canada in 1969. Richard attended the University of Western Ontario in London, receiving his PhD in Plant Biology in 1975. Richard and Di then moved to Winnipeg, where he taught botany and ecology for 32 years at the University of Winnipeg (UW). Richard made major contributions to the then-limited UW herbarium by collecting, cataloguing, and storing more than 6500 specimens during his tenure. In recognition of this, the herbarium was named in his honour.2 He was further recognized by UW with the Clifford J. Robson Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence, and eventually with the status of Professor Emeritus.

Richard inspired many students to take an interest in ecology and some made it their career. He was always a teacher, leading students to learn, and the teacher-student relationship was often a life-long connection. Over forty years ago, Anita Drabyk attended his classes in his second year of teaching; three of her fellow students continued careers in botany and ecology. Anita undertook a 4th-year botany project with Richard, and reminisces that she owes her love of both plants and coffee to long, coffee-fueled discussions with him and another student. Over the years, they bumped into each other through other botanists and more recently through Nature Manitoba outings. He was a “people person,” remembering not just the plants, birds, and butterflies he saw but many of the people who crossed his path as well.

Richard’s interests in nature were varied, but ferns and other “primitive” plants drew his special attention. Our selective list of references includes several major, recent (post-retirement) publications on plant distribution in Manitoba,3-6 as well as some earlier papers that may be of particular interest to readers.7-9 A literature search, for example using Google Scholar, will quickly reveal many of his more technical botanical papers. Richard’s knowledge of both plants and birds made him the ideal person to write an important chapter in The Birds of Manitoba on the province’s ecosystems and bird habitats, providing the botanical context that underpins most bird distribution.10 He also served on the Data Verification Sub-committee of the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas following completion of fieldwork in 2014 (see below).

From 2015 to 2019, Richard coordinated a project to compile a “five-year snapshot” of butterfly sightings in southeastern Manitoba. He spent countless hours converting emailed butterfly lists from many observers into a standardized format, and co-authored a resulting series of online articles.11 Sadly, more detailed data analysis was incomplete at the time of his passing, though he remained engaged in this and other research interests right up to Christmas 2021.

Above: Atlassing at Bain Lake, Manitoba with Rudolf Koes, 10 July 2013. [Photo by Ken Poitras]

While it is important for us to recognize Richard’s contributions to teaching, Canadian botany, and wider natural history, we also wish to share a few reminiscences of time spent with him.

Richard was an active contributor to the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas from 2010 to 2014. Rudolf Koes recalls atlas trips with him to a number of fishing lodges at remote northern lakes. “Besides looking for birds, Richard also usually acted as the driver of the boats we used, as well as entering data at the day’s end. Whenever we landed at an island or shore, he would keep an eye open for ferns and other primitive plants. He discovered a new taxon for Manitoba, Northern Wood-Fern, as well as several other rare and localized ferns.6 Among the memorable adventures we had was watching a wolf trot by while we were quietly resting on the ridge of an esker, landing on an island and finding Grizzly Bear tracks that were larger than the footprints of our boots, and having to be evacuated at a moment’s notice when a forest fire threatened our camp.” A note from one atlas trip on a Common Nighthawk feeding on year-old wolf scats, apparently as a source of calcium, is a testament to Richard’s inquiring mind.12

Richard was an eager participant in many field trips during the five-year butterfly project. On one such trip, a Bog Copper was found during lunch break. Richard was every bit as entertained by Peter Taylor’s efforts to communicate this find with a mouthful of ham sandwich as he was enthused by the butterfly itself. On another outing, on his home turf at Birds Hill Provincial Park, Richard led us to the intriguing local population of Alberta Arctic, considered by some to be a distinct subspecies or even a separate species. Richard was often in knee- to waist-high grass along a forest edge or in a ditch, which no doubt contributed greatly to the wood-tick count in any car he was traveling in! Invitations to a casual get-together in the Staniforths’ garden following some of these outings were graciously extended and immensely enjoyed by all.

Despite his battle with cancer and the almost fatal chemotherapy treatments, Richard retained his inspiring optimism, adventurous spirit, and sense of humor. Though he walked with great difficulty, he continued to camp regularly in un-serviced campgrounds and to search for plants, birds and butterflies he’d not seen, boundlessly curious as always. If you were lucky enough to be with him and Di and found something he’d missed, he’d be quick with a compliment rather than a complaint about his misfortune. “Good for you!” he’d say with genuine enthusiasm. His sense of humour could be mischievous – as evident from the story Di told of the first weeks of their marriage. “How do you like your bacon cooked,” she asked. “In milk,” he responded casually, to her eventual consternation. On any trip or outing Richard was the ultimate “boon companion.”

Some of those trips had their hiccups. Richard had to MacGyver a fix for a broken trailer spring while on the road in Mexico, using duct tape and a piece of roadside rubber. A day or two down the road from that incident, he and Di talked their way out of a traffic ticket for making a left turn on a questionably red light, all while speaking little Spanish. These stories and others were retold later with great humour and many laughs.

Above: Up close and personal with a young crocodile, Tecolutla River, Mexico, 22 January 2008. [Photo by Sam Courcelles]

There was always a sense of adventure on these trips. Richard climbed the Mayan ruins in Palenque while Howler Monkeys roared, got up close and personal with a young cocodrilo in the mangrove swamps along the Tecolutla River, and searched a humid Costa Rican jungle for Great Green Macaws. He saw the magnificence of Machu Picchu, roamed the ancient Incan streets of Cusco, and walked among the ferns in an Andean cloud forest. And then there was the hair-raising 180-kilometre drive on the Manu Road down to the Rio Madre de Dios where boats waited to go further into the Upper Amazon Basin.

Underlying all those adventures was Richard’s insatiable and infectious curiosity for the world around him. He is survived by Di, their four sons and five grandchildren. We will all miss his enthusiastic words of encouragement and his sunny outlook on life.

[compiled by Peter Taylor with contributions from Garry Budyk, Andy Courcelles, Deanna Dodgson, Anita Drabyk, Rudolf Koes, and Gene Walz].

1 Richard John Staniforth, October 2, 1946 - January 12, 2022. Obituary, Ethical Death Care, Winnipeg.
2  Avila G (2017). Richard Staniforth Herbarium (UWPG). University of Winnipeg. Occurrence dataset.
3 Staniforth RJ (2011). Ophioglossid Ferns in Manitoba: moonworts, grapeferns and Northern Adder's-Tongue. Blue Jay 69(2):75-87.
4 Staniforth RJ (2012). The Lycopods (Phylum Lycopodiophyta); clubmosses, firmosses, spikemosses and quillworts, in Manitoba. Blue Jay, 70(2):82-104.
5 Staniforth RJ (2013). Horsetails and scouring-rushes (Equisetum Spp.) in Manitoba. Blue Jay 71(1):48-67.
6 Staniforth RJ (2016). A new annotated list of Manitoba ferns (Spring, 2016). Blue Jay 74(3):6-11.
7 Staniforth RJ, Frego KA (1980). Flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus) in the Canadian prairies. Canadian Field-Naturalist 94(3):333-336.
8 Frego KA, Staniforth RJ (1986). Brittle Prickly-pear cactus, Opuntia fragilis, in the boreal forest of southeastern Manitoba. Canadian Field-Naturalist 100(2):229-236.
9 Staniforth RJ (2002). Effects of urbanization on bird populations in the Canadian Central Arctic. Arctic 55(1):87-93.
10 Staniforth RJ (2003). Ecosystems and bird habitats in Manitoba. Chapter in The Birds of Manitoba, Manitoba Avian Research Committee, Winnipeg, pp. 34-55.
11 Staniforth R, de March L, Dodgson D, Taylor P (2020-2021). A Snapshot of Butterflies in Southeast Manitoba: a citizen science project to record butterfly and skipper species and numbers (2015-2019). Compilation available online, courtesy of Nature Manitoba here.
12 Staniforth R, Koes R (2013). An observation of ground feeding and coprophagy by a Common Nighthawk in NW Manitoba. Blue Jay 71(3):132-134.